UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers

Net Losses
Craig Dworkin

From OL3: open letter on lines online (2000)

Poetry is that mode of sacrifice in which meaning is the victim.
--George Bataille

I have to admit that not much more than a year ago I'd never even seen a web site (and my computer still reprimands me with some frequency for turning it off improperly), but over the last few months I have been working with new media consultants at Princeton University to develop Eclipse, a web-based resource that will make available free, archive-quality digital versions of innovative small press books and independent literary journals from the last quarter-century, as well as provide a venue for the continued publication of new works of cutting-edge writing.

Because many of the most important publications from the 1970s and '80s were published in small-press editions from non-commercial publishers, the literary record of our recent past is already largely out of print and unrepresented in even the special collections of major research libraries. In academia, high-use access to such material is acutely needed, and the potential benefits from a web-based distribution are great: taking work formerly available at only a handful of exceptionally resourceful or fortuitous collections and essentially placing a copy of the (currently) most inaccessible books in every library in North America. Pedagogically, such distribution will permit literature departments to offer less canonical courses on 'contemporary poetry' regardless of their school's library holdings or the vagaries of commercial reprints and anthologies. Moreover,making a more comprehensive section of the poetic record available to scholarly consideration is imperative at a moment when the literary history of the last few decades is just now beginning to be written and contested. I could continue to speculate on the advantages of new media for distributing poetry, but rather than catalogue potential gains, I want to register a ground of loss. To archive texts with new digital media is a curiously paradoxical strategy of staying the ephemerality of one medium through media that are even more tenuous, mutable, and prone to the sheer unrecoverability of technical obsolescence. Many of these issues are at the heart what curator Jon Ippolito has termed "variable media." Although Ippolito, curiously enough, seems oblivious to certain implications of his insights into cross media artwork, to imagine the conservation of artwork as a migration from one medium to another should remind us that however variable or fixed, durably resistant or seemingly dematerialized, any work we encounter is -- at the moment of its encounter -- materially specific. To move from print to the web, for example, is to move from a medium defined by the page to one in which pages (despite the telling metaphor of the "webpage") do not, in fact, exist. During the technical development meetings for Eclipse, my insistence on registering the pages of archived material was regarded by the computer experts as quaintly old-fashioned, if not distressingly retrograde. What they did not understand, however, was that my attachment to the page is not romantically nostalgic, but semiotic. Because like all the material aspects of a book -- layout, typeface and fount, binding, ink, et cetera -- that page carries a full semantic charge. As decades of literary and communication theory have reiterated, media are not merely implicated in the meaning of a work, but they are, in themselves, fully a part of that meaning. In terms of the page, one need only recall the quality grade of remaindered stock that characterized the cultural context of the Tuumba Press books, the oversized formats of LEGEND (B.Andrews et al.) and uneven development (P. Inman), the folded cover-flaps of disfrutes (C. Bernstein), the proportion of type to margin in Space (C.Coolidge), the chemical sheen of mimeo . . . . all of these are elements whose meanings are lost on line.

To recognize that with the transfer from page to screen a significant part of a text's meaning is lost (or at best, perhaps, approximated) need not, however, be elegaic. Despite the tendency to consider more durable and palpable media as somehow more 'material' (not to mention the rhetoric of transparency behind "Windows"), digital media do not, of course,dematerialize works: they merely rematerialize them, and one gains semantic meaning at the same rate of its loss. Given this dynamic of material semantics, I want to propose that we begin to think of intermedia transfers as acts not so much of conservation or distribution, but of translation. The problems of translating between languages are manifest; would a translator of Louis Zukofsky's own translation of Cavalcanti in "A"-9, for instance, follow details of vocabulary and theme, or replicate the poem's mathematical distribution of "n" and "r" sounds? Indeed, the responsibility of translating form has been exemplified by the Zukosfskys' translation of Catullus, as well as David Melnick's translation of the first book of the Iliad, Richard Alan Francis' translation of Julian Rios' Larva, and Gilbert Adair's translation of George Perec la disparition. That same attention to form should set the standard for thinking about the translation of artwork from one medium to another. Again, the point is not that formal meanings are mournfully lost (in the general economy of the text you've always already lost, as soon as you make a decision about how to read); the point is that programmers and curators and web developers, like readers, must make the decision to pursue or ignore the information embodied in material forms. As the printer William Morris announced a century ago: "you can't have art without resistance in the material." Or, as we might translate this to the age of electronic media: ohms is where the art is.

OL3: open letter on lines online | UbuWeb